How we create a LION Sustainability Audit and our vision for its future

Three years and 350 Audits later, we have a plan for increasing this product’s accessibility.

April 10, 2024 by Chloe Kizer

Graphic created by Ben Cunningham/
Graphic created by Ben Cunningham/

What good is talking about sustainability if we don’t know which news businesses have actually achieved it?

That was the premise that led to the creation of the LION Sustainability Audits and Funding program, which provides a comprehensive assessment of a news business’s strengths and opportunities, resulting in a report identifying short-, medium-, and long-term action items that will move the business closer to sustainability.

Since 2021, we’ve completed 350 Sustainability Audits and Progress Reports, which are completely free to selected member businesses. And 93 percent of Audit recipients have told us the roadmap the Audit provides makes them feel more confident in their organization’s ability to reach sustainability. 

There are still some opportunities for LION members to receive an Audit in 2024, but because of our limited capacity and resources, we can’t do Audits for the hundreds of remaining members who have yet to receive one or who have requested Progress Reports, regular follow-up assessments of their progress. In our strategic plan, we commit to ensuring every LION member can receive an Audit, and so we’re working on the next evolution of the Audit to meet that goal.

The history of the Audit

Inspired by SembraMedia’s Digital Media assessment protocol, we designed the first version of our Audit as part of the screening of applicants for our inaugural Google News Initiative Startups Lab. In our retrospective, though, we identified the need to clarify the purpose of the Audit: Is it a program application tool, or might it be better utilized as a service for publishers in its own right? Ultimately, we decided that if members were going to spend time sharing their data with us, they needed to more directly benefit from all that effort. So we spun the Audit out as a standalone learning and assessment tool.

Our first Audit consisted of 71 mostly open-ended qualitative questions, and over time, we’ve restructured the list to consist of 93 qualitative and quantitative questions that collect key process or health metric data across our three key pillars of sustainability: journalistic impact, operational resilience, and financial health. Every time we do a new round of Audits and see how our members answered the questions, it helps inform how we can ask better questions to get more relevant, actionable insights and recommendations for members to act upon.

We’ve also given direct dollars to publishers who have completed the Audit with the intention of those dollars lowering barriers to tackling the report’s short-term recommendations. As of today, thanks to support from the Knight Foundation and the Google News Initiative, we’re giving $20,000 stipends to each news business that completes the Sustainability Audit and Funding program. By the end of 2024, we will have given out over $7 million in direct funding through the Audit program since 2022, and we know that this combination of strategic advice plus unrestricted funding has made a big difference for members. (We share more below on the future of direct dollars attached to the Audit program).

LION member Jay Senter of Johnson County Post told us based on their Audit report, his business decided to merge two publications, expand their coverage area, and wholly redesign their site, plus hire a full-time salesperson. “We’ve seen advertising revenue far outpace what we’d even hoped for. And subscriptions, which had been lagging last year, have jumped back on the growth track we’d aimed for,” he said. 

He added that the Audit analyst’s advice, combined with the $20,000, “have pushed us past a plateau we’d been struggling to move out of for a couple years,” and it’s been “a huge inflection point for our organization.”

How we currently produce Audits

Currently, all U.S.-based LION members who have been in existence for at least six months are eligible for the Sustainability Audits and Funding program. (Previously, we’ve also offered Audits to Canadian-based publishers). The application is meant to be low-lift for publishers and give our staff just enough information to prioritize the best candidates for the Audit. Some questions include:

  • How would you rank your top three primary strategic challenges (based on a list we provide)?
  • How do you evaluate opportunities or decisions for your news business?
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, how close is your news business to reaching sustainability?
  • What 1-3 questions about your news business would you like to address in the Audit process?

What we’re primarily screening for in the application process is whether publishers can benefit from the insights, plus their level of organizational commitment to the Audit process and capacity to implement the Audit recommendations. Also, so far, we’ve tried to select a mix of publications across organization size, geography, missions, and audiences served so that we can begin to pick out trends based on an accurate representation of LION’s membership.

Once publishers are selected, the Audits are completed in three main phases: 

  • Audit questionnaire
  • Audit interview 
  • Audit report

The Audit questionnaire assesses the current state of a news organization across our three pillars of sustainability: operational resilience, financial health, and journalistic impact. A leader of the organization is given two weeks to fill out the questionnaire, which takes about three hours for most organizations to complete.

Sample questions from across these three categories

Operational Resilience

  • Does your news business have a documented (i.e., formally written) one- or three-year plan?
  • Which part of your news business could most benefit from additional staffing?
  • Which of the following practices related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) apply to your news business’ operations? 

Financial Health

  • Since launch, has your news business’ revenue consistently grown by 10 percent or more year over year?
  • Which of the following financial documents (Profit and Loss Statement, Budget, Balance Sheet, Cash Flow Forecast) does your news business create? 
  • What key metrics does your news business use to gauge financial health?

Journalistic Impact

  • Has your news business defined your target audience(s)? 
  • What audience research has your news business done to better understand your community?
  • What steps has your news business taken to ensure your coverage and sources reflect the diversity of the community you’re serving?

The Audit interview is a 90-minute call with an industry expert who LION has trained as an Audit analyst. The Audit analyst reads the complete questionnaire before the call, and then uses the interview to dig more deeply into questionnaire responses, goals, and organizational practices.

Some sample questions from our Audit interview

  • What is your north star/mission/driving ambition?
  • Tell me about a typical day or week. Where do you spend your time?
  • What are your goals around [particular revenue stream]?

An Audit report is then created by the Audit analyst, with support from LION staff. The report provides:

  •  A summary of where the publication is on its path to sustainability based on our evolving maturity model for independent news businesses 
  • A selection of business’s strengths and how to capitalize on them
  • A list of sustainability indicators the publication has completed and those it has yet to complete
  • A customized and prioritized list of recommended actions (short/medium/long-term) to become more sustainable 

The Audit process from start to finish takes about 10 to 12 weeks, with an overall time commitment of about six hours from each news business, and they receive the completed Audit report at the end of an Audit cycle. 

Here’s a sample Audit report that’s been anonymized, and we’ve received permission from the publisher and analyst to share it.

Based on LION staff time, Audit analysts’ time, and the technology, each Audit currently costs LION roughly $3,000 to produce.

How we recruit and train Audit analysts

We decided early on that we wanted Audit recommendations to be based on diverse expertise from across the industry. That meant we shouldn’t have only LION staff writing them, and that we wanted each report to be informed by as many smart brains as possible. 

So we opened an application process to recruit analysts and then developed standards to train them on our maturity model, theory of sustainability, and Audit report framework. Then, we created an onboarding process for new analysts and opportunities for them to connect with and learn from each other. We’ve found that the best analysts –– the ones who receive the highest praise from publishers –– are those who recognize they don’t need to be experts in everything and can curate the LION community, industry knowledge, and their networks to design their Audit recommendations.

We typically ask analysts to commit to three reports in each 10-week cycle, and they are compensated for their time.

To date, we’ve worked with a total of 40 Audit analysts. They represent diverse expertise from across the news and small business industries, and we’re grateful that so many talented and experienced industry professionals see this as an opportunity to stay connected to and support local news publishers’ work.

Here are some testimonials from analysts we’ve worked with:

“The Audit program certainly can help news organizations face challenges and build toward a more sustainable future. The program’s most positive aspect, though, has to be how it fosters knowledge sharing and a sense of community among growing and, let’s be honest, struggling news orgs. Hearing from other analysts and sharing learnings with the organizations I worked with encouraged a sense of optimism. If we are going to improve the state of local news, it’s going to be through collaboration.”

Bene Cipolla, organizational consultant and former publisher of Chalkbeat

“Local newsrooms often know that they need to improve, but not how they can improve. Audits like these help reveal both opportunities and solutions to help newsrooms build stable and strong businesses.”

Dan Oshinsky, founder of Inbox Collective

“LION’s Audits are an important service that would usually be too expensive for most independent news organizations to afford on their own. These Audits help organizations discover opportunities to address their most pressing challenges, and they provide resources and ideas from people with deep experience in media business, product, audience development, and leadership. The Audit provides an opportunity for any organization to assess nearly every aspect of its operations and to become inspired about possibilities for future sustainability.”

Shannan Bowen, executive director of North Carolina Local News Workshop

The future of the Audit

We’ve learned so much from approaching our Audits as a custom, bespoke process for each member who receives one. And many of our analysts have found that they’re often repeating the same recommendations for news businesses who are at specific stages of development. Additionally, we’ve heard that the simple act of answering Audit questions helps publishers think more strategically about their business.  

Given these considerations, we realized a self-service, technology-based product would help us achieve that and our goal of ensuring every LION member who wants an Audit can receive one. So that’s where the Audit is headed: A self-service product available in our forthcoming LION Member Portal that any LION member can input information into and receive a useful and actionable Audit report.

We’re particularly excited for this vision of the Audit for three main reasons.

First, we believe this will allow us to create industry benchmarks to help publishers set realistic goals of success. A question we regularly get from new members is, “How is my business doing compared to others?” or “What kind of growth is possible given my market size and staff capacity?” By collecting data points from across hundreds of independent news publishers, we want to set performance standards so news businesses can better understand what long-term success can look like.

Second, we believe it will make it easier for LION members to decide what steps to take on the path to sustainability. We envision that the Audit will become a starting point for members to access tailored member benefits for their stage of development and immediate goals, from asynchronous courses and peer groups to engaging with our forthcoming Expert Network, a database of industry experts with whom members can book consulting time. We foresee a future where consultants and coaches read the Audit report as a baseline for specific, tailored advice or recommendations that publishers are seeking.

Third, we believe it could help align all funders, news organizations, and industry support organizations on success metrics for local news. We know that many funders and support organizations are eager to have consistent, standardized reports that allow them to better understand a news business’s mission, impact, and areas where their investment will truly make a catalytic difference. The Audit provides this, and thus makes it easier for our members to use their Audit report as a starting place to design their fundraising strategies and specific asks. We’d also expect this to help members make more effective pitches to prospective large and small donors, and advertisers. It is important that members be able to use the Audit as a basis for generating revenue, especially given that we aren’t planning to continue to give direct dollars attached to these self-service Audits. (As we wrote in our strategic plan, being a funder is not our long-term strategy).

As we continue to reimagine the future of our Audit, we’re also looking for trusted partners to help us evolve our definition of sustainability and develop the resources that will best guide organizations toward that goal. Later this month, we’ll share our latest round of Audit recipients, which includes newsrooms that we classify as being in our Growing stage who will be audited by our partner, Blue Engine Collaborative. Our hope is through their strategic thought partnership, we can get even smarter about how we’re measuring sustainability across the spectrum of the independent news industry, from new startups to established operations.

Finally, we are reimagining the future of a bespoke Audit product as a collaboration across our Audit and coaching programs, but one thing we know for sure based on feedback from our members is that more independent news publishers would benefit from having access to this critical strategic tool — so expanding that accessibility is our number one goal right now. 

A big thank you to the Knight Foundation and Google News Initiative for supporting our Sustainability Audits and Funding program, our evolving research, and the continued development of this product.

If you’re a funder interested in learning more about how and where LION’s Sustainability Audits might fit in your plans for existing or prospective grantees, reach out to our Executive Director Chris Krewson at [email protected]

If you’re a member interested in giving feedback on how the Audit can be a more effective tool for you, reach out to our Membership Director Sarah Gustavus Lim at [email protected]

If you’re a researcher interested in learning more about our methodology, reach out to me at [email protected].

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